Sitting in a local coffee shop the day tickets went on sale for the Smashing Pumpkins residency in Asheville, my husband and I simply stared at the clock. The laptop out, already connected to the ticket site, already logged in. Around us, laptops on other tables displayed the same screen, and we traded excited banter with the other patrons. At last, someone shouted "I'm in!", and we all began frantically plugging in our choices for dates to attend. Working around a two tickets per person limit, my husband completed his purchase for two, and then turned the laptop over to me, as I raced to pick up one more for our ten year old son. Bizarre, I suppose, that you can get an adrenaline rush buying tickets online...but we did. I snagged our third ticket and we sat back in ecstatic happiness. But then, behind us, we overheard a couple saying they couldn't find any dates with tickets still available. A woman on the other side joined in. We wondered if somehow we had an advantage, using Linux, and started trying to help them...but all tickets were gone. As far as I know, we were the only people to walk out of that coffee shop having managed our purchase before they sold out. The whole thing had taken about five minutes.
Fans everywhere were disappointed, but perhaps none more vocal about it than Asheville residents, who complained vociferously that more tickets should have been reserved for locals. Tickets up for sale on Ebay and other sites sold for hundreds of dollars (I heard rumors of tickets going for as much as $900, but was unable to verify). As the residency began, we were surprised to see people lining up outside The Orange Peel at three in the afternoon. Asking around, we found out that the club was selling 100 tickets at the door each evening, though whether this was part of the original plan or a placating gesture to the locals is anyone's guess. The gig was slotted to comprise nine shows over thirteen days, open to all ages and with the audience invited to bring their recording equipment. Billed as giving "...fans a unique opportunity to see the Pumpkins inside the process of creation and operating in the spur of the moment. The band will be taking chances in the hope of taking fans, and their music, to new places," the shows were the first residency The Smashing Pumpkins had played since a four night run at the Double Door in Chicago in 1994. Initial reports of this latest effort, received from friends who had gotten tickets to earlier shows, were encouraging to say the least. No one was regretting their twenty dollar investment. On Saturday, the 30th, The Smashing Pumpkins invited members of Asheville's downtown drum circle to open for them on stage, ensuring them the undying affection of many Ashevillians (and quite possibly the eternal animosity of others, but one rather doubts such people came to the show). We heard tales of acoustic sets performed when the sound system crashed, enthusiastic descriptions of songs from their new album, Zeitgeist, relieved opinions that the new band members (Ginger Reyes replacing D'arcy Wretzky on bass and Jeff Schroeder taking over James Iha's slot on guitar, with Lisa Harriton on keyboard) were able to adequately fill their predecessor's shoes.
Unfortunately, the performance I witnessed on July 2 was not at first all I had hoped it would be. Opening with "Blue Skies Bring Tears", the first half of the show was almost a disappointment. Even though the music was an entertaining mix of old and new, the band seemed tired. Billy Corgan didn't engage the audience much, the incredible volume of the music overpowered the small venue and the distortion + reverberation made it hard to hear the melody. The new keyboardist, Lisa Harriton, was, to put it gently, really really bad. Let's hope she was just having an off night, but she didn't even keep time with the rest of the band, though she seemed very into her swaying as she stood near the back of the stage. Worst of all, many of the songs seemed rushed, as if the band was just trying to get through another night. Even "Disarm", the song I most wanted to hear, came out half-hearted -- though it was still good enough to make me cry.
And this is the secret truth about this concert: even when not at their best, The Smashing Pumpkins are still the best damned show I have seen in over a decade. Their shabbiest efforts manage to make you ache in all the best ways, taking you back to your angst-filled youth and then swinging you headlong into your angst-filled adulthood without ever letting you touch down enough to feel self-conscious.
Scoping the crowd during the first set, I realized that many of them were not quite sure what to make of it all. Some were avidly slamming their heads against an imaginary wall, their hands raised in the required three-fingered salute. Many were more obsessed with watching the show through their cell phone cameras than in losing themselves in the experience, the cost (I suppose) of the novelty of being allowed to make recordings. Some were just standing there, more or less open-mouthed, as if they could not believe they got in at all, or that Billy Corgan had somehow managed to survive long enough to be standing on stage in front of them. And then, there was me...and my kid.
Allow me to step away from reviewing the show for a brief moment and instead review the scene, from the new-to-me perspective of being a Mom, taking your ten year old kid to his first real rock concert. In many ways, it was a fantastic and awesome thing (and I mean those words literally), as I witnessed him coming to terms with a whole other scene than anything he has ever experienced. Standing in the crush before the band walked out on stage, I responded to his complaints that he was getting squashed, and instructed him on the art of how to hold your own space without being unfair to others. Otherwise, I tried to leave him alone to take it all in. Seeing the reactions of most of the crowd to this "little kid" restored some of my faith in humanity, as they chatted and joked with him (the shorter adults commiserating with his plight) and tried their best to make channels for him to see. We were greeted everywhere with friendly smiles and thumbs-up signals, and I overheard people we passed talking about the Pumpkins' "youngest fan". And then the show began, and in barrelled the frat boys, elbowing their way through the crowd in complete disregard for the hard earned places of others, drunkenly shoving people out of their way...to end up right between my kid and me. This did not go over well, as my son began to look around in mild panic from the middle of the thrashing crowd, and hardcore Mommy instincts battled with wanting to set a good example for my kid (as opposed to kicking the fuck out of their shins as I would have done had he not been present). A woman beside me tried to draw their attention to the growing issue, but they bullheadedly ignored her. At which point I grabbed one of them by the shoulder and spun him around, hollering "That's my kid...get the FUCK out of my way!!" Needless to say, he moved. Indeed, getting older is an interesting process. I like to think that I shared a little wisdom with those boys. After all, it takes a village...
Back to the show, the first set ended somewhat flaccidly with "Doomsday Clock" and we retreated outside for a breath of fresh air and a much-needed cigarette (yeah, irony intended). My husband and offspring compared photographs they had taken of the show, as I crowd-watched. It was obvious that I was not the only one feeling that the show thus far had been good, memorable...but not great. Not as great as the reports from my friends had led me to believe. People didn't look blissed out or ecstatic, though a lot of them were conversing in shouts and squinting as they tried to lip-read the responses. But then we headed back in for the second set...and everything changed.
I don't know what they took or how they did it, but from the very first song of the second set, "Starla", you could tell the energy had totally changed. They were electrifying to watch, the volume no longer seemed to detract from the performance, and we were submerged in the power of their music. Suddenly, the band seemed alive (well, ok, Ginger still came off as a bass-bot, but everyone else seemed living), and Billy had magically regained his stage presence, teasing the audience mercilessly (they didn't seem to notice) and bantering in the general direction of Jimmy Chamberlain on drums: "Eventually the pennies trickle down to us," he quipped, in a tongue-in-cheek plea to not pirate their music, "and Jimmy here has three kids...those pennies add up. Now me, I have zero kids...I guess I'm not as potent as Jimmy. Maybe a platinum album will help me get my machismo back. I was really potent in the 90's... but then, weren't we all more potent in the 90's?"
As we headed into the middle of the second set, the rest of the band left the stage and Billy donned an acoustic guitar under a single spotlight. His first acoustic piece was a song off the new album, "For God and Country", which left the audience quietly mesmerized while he played, and erupting into a tidal wave of cheers at its conclusion. He went on to deliver acoustic renditions of "Daydream", "The Crying Tree of Mercury", "Rocket", and "To Sheila", all of which were riveting. The rest of the band reappeared to wrap up with "Silverfuck" and "Fuck You", and managed to nail the show home, though for the first encore Billy once again went it alone. It was a strange reminder that the band was different. Billy has grown up, has finally managed to complete the transformation from angry, weepy post-adolescent to a grown man with a definitive mastery of the guitar and a deeper (albeit more cynical) message to deliver. But while The Smashing Pumpkins have always centered around Billy Corgan, these days Billy is the band. And for whatever moral judgments the people of the world might like to make about that, musically it works out just fine.
It would be nice to have D'arcy and James back, but for as long as Ginger and Jeff can take it (please, Billy, get rid of Lisa) perhaps it is best to have a clear dictator in the creation of their music, a lack of interference in the presentation of Billy's vision. He's come around to accepting that he wants the spotlight, and he has earned his place in it. Maybe recognition of that fact will eventually bring him that platinum, and we will all be treated to family photos of mini-Billy's running around in snarky t-shirts and plastic guitars.
Walking away from the show at 1:30 in the morning, watching my family eagerly comparing their camera shots and listening to the final strains of "Cherub Rock" fade into oblivion, my feelings were best summarized in the words of a friend's kid (11) who went to see the show on Saturday night. Her evaluation was simple: That was the most fun I have ever had.